Most people thought Divinyls had gone
the way of fellow countrymen Men At Work and Rick Springfield — pop anomalies
whose careers broke big, and broke down as quickly, in the early '80s. But Divinyls
were troopers — they didn't go away. They've been plugging at the edge
of the rock scene for years now, trying to recapture their momentum, trying
to snag that big break.
Christina Amphlett and Mark McEntee formed Divinyls over a decade ago. They started out on the fast track — within a year of getting together, they put out Monkey Grip in Australia. They became the first Aussie band (says Amphlett) to be signed directly to an American label (Chrysalis). With a new lineup, they released Desperate in 1983, their international debut. They found success on the college charts and begin touring incessantly.
Three albums, eight years later and Amphlett and McEntee only now seem to have climbed the next rung on the career success ladder. With their self-titled debut on Virgin (their fifth LP), the group is at last enjoying crossover chart success with the risque lead single "I Touch Myself" and (typically) lots of folks are hopping the wagon to praise this "new band."
"We're not," laughs Amphlett in her New York hotel room. "But people think the Divinyls are a new band now!"
After a decade of being disregarded, something new was definitely needed for Divinyls. Chrysalis' decision to drop the group may have been a disquised boon.
"We got dropped from Chrysalis in 1988 and Mark and I decided to go to Paris in '89 and just have some fun and see what we were going to do," Amphlett relates. "Then we started writing and we sent [the songs] back to our American management and they really liked them and sent them to Virgin who thought they were really keen. We really liked Virgin — they seemed to understand us and be the one that would be suitable for us."
Amphlett blames much of the band's undeserved obscurity on her former label, which she says didn't pay much attention to them. They certainly don't have that problem with Virgin, which has been giving the big push to Divinyls.
"We were touring in '83 on Desperate, and [Chrysalis] was changing offices and I think there wasn't a lot of focus on our record," Amphlett recalls. "We just got out on the road and tried to generate as much press as we could. And then it just seemed like every time we were with the company, they had a different staff. We didn't really have a great relationship and by the third record, there wasn't any relationship at all!"
Leaving behind the players they had worked with in the past, as well as producer Mike Chapman, who'd worked on their previous two LPs, opened up the band to new influences, and a cleaner sound as they headed into the studio last year. The result has already yielded a number one single in Australia, and the band has just wrapped up a video for "Love School," which will follow "Touch" as a single there. Amphlett says it's still in the air as to what track will be the next U.S. single.
But why did they ditch Chapman, who has a long track record of producing female singers?
"I don't think he wanted to work with us," Amphlett laughs. "I think he got bored with us or something. See on What A Life, we worked mostly with an English producer and then Mike came in and did two tracks with us. Then he remixed the record and we worked with him again on Tempermental. He had a lot of ties with Chrysalis and stuff like that, and seems to like working with Chrysalis acts. And I don't think we had much of a relationship really either, so when we left Chyrsalis, it didn't really continue . . ."
"This record is better for us in the production department," Amphlett admits. "I think on the last record [Tempermental] things sound a bit buried. I think this one's really sparse and simple and organic. We recorded it live (though we've always done that) and the sounds are really good, the playing is great, the keyboards are very natural and very soulful. Everything has its place, nothing interferes. It's just a very organic record."
While Divinyls have really been a duo through much of their history, Amphlett is quick to point out that recording is always a band project with McEntee writing most of the music and herself penning lyrics.
"The first record we did, Monkey Grip, was with some other guys and then some of them changed and then Desperate and What A Life was the same, and then I suppose some of them went their own ways for different reasons, personal reasons, or just you know, out of disappointment that we hadn't done better. Then on Tempermental we used some different people and we used different people on this record. So it's been basically Mark and I together through the whole period. It's always been a band kind of approach though in the studio. Basically Mark writes the music and I write the lyrics. Sometimes we cross over — I just have things in my head, you know, Mark is the technical one."
It seems that the two had some good stuff in their heads when they set out to record Divinyls — as well as a great backing band (which includes renowned keyboardist Benmont Tench, bassist Randy Jackson and drummer Charlie Drayton). One would also expect a hit song when songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly (who've penned lite pop chart toppers for The Bangles, Cyndi Lauper and countless others) show up. But a single that rather obviously addresses female masturbation? This is not their normal turf! Amphlett has worked with Steinberg/Kelly before (they wrote "Like A Cat" for Lauper's last LP together) though never for a Divinyls album. The two writers also handed Amphlett the most achingly beautiful ballad to close off the album — "I'm On Your Side."
"They came into the studio when we were recording and played it on acoustic guitar — they actually wrote it for me to sing. I like that song."
She lets on that "Touch" was written in a restaurant but hedges at its "meaning."
"We were sitting, writing in a restaurant and these two girls were listening, and I suppose we were just . . . being silly. I don't know. No, we weren't. But it's one of those songs that can be taken on different levels. And I think it's up to the listener's interpretation of that song — if you're a nun, you know, you're going to interpret it in one way, and if you're a stripper you're going to interpret it in another, you know."
Did they hope the titilating nature of it would work to their benefit as the scandal around Madonna's "Justify My Love" did?
"It was a bit of an attention grabber," she admits.
Certainly, the video, though erotic, doesn't approach the shock value of "Justify."
"I don't think there's a lot that's risque in the video — some people think it is, but you know, I suppose there's a bit a flesh in it and there's a contortionist looking through her legs, touching herself and stuff, upside down . . ."
No matter how you interpret it, sexuality oozes from "Touch," and lust is actually a rather dominant theme on Divinyls. Songs like "Lay Your Body Down," and "Love School" drip sensuality. Even the cover shot features Amphlett wearing only a fishnet dress.
"I was trying to be dressed and naked at the same time," she says. But playing the sex symbol isn't what Amphlett is all about. And she doesn't seem overly concerned that the band doesn't yet have the stature of fellow Aussies INXS.
"We've had a lot of support and toured and had fun, so it hasn't been 'hell'," she quips, drawing out the last word. "You just keep on doing it because you enjoy doing it. It's not as if we haven't had fun. We've traveled heaps. I mean, right from the word go we wanted to be an international band and we have been."
Amphlett says she just hopes the new record does well enough so that they can tour the world again.
"There's no point in touring if nobody wants to hear you. I've never been one to want to perform to 10 people — I get really shy. The more people, the better!"
When Divinyls first broke on the international scene, it was during the demise of punk. Now as they rise again, it looks as if rock n' roll itself is in danger of extinction. But Amphlett is unconcerned. She says it only makes her group more necessary.
"It's either heavy metal or rap out there," she says. "It's kind of good because it makes us a little more unique. We've always just done what we do. We've always had lots of melody in our music, we've always been a rock 'n' roll band. I suppose my performance was always a little punky, because it was confronting, but you know, you just got to do what you do. You can't just check over the trends or else you lose who you are."
With their roots in Australia, their record company in America, and the site for the recording of Divinyls in France (hence the short instrumental "Cafe Interlude"), the band does seem to have developed a certain rock 'n' cosmopolitan flair. And when it comes to music — England and America give them their heroes. Some of the guitar work on the new album even hearkens to (who else) The Beatles.
"You can't help it sometimes, to be influenced by The Beatles, I suppose, but I don't think that's a great main influence of ours. Growing up in Australia, you hear from English rock and roll and American rock and roll. And as we've traveled, like when we first started , if we'd do a cover, it would be an Australian band like The Easy Beats or The Loved Ones. But as we've traveled we've kind of broadened our influences. We listen to a lot of old blues guitar players like B.B. King and Hooker and stuff like that and your Jeff Becks. I listen to classical music."
But what about pop? Surely a pop rock band listens to other pop stars.
"No I don't listen to pop music at all. In fact I hate pop music. We're more of a rock 'n' roll band with some pop. I listen to blues and rock and country music, but I don't listen to pop, pop, pop."
If the music on Divinyls is any indication of the power of listening to the old masters, maybe we should send Expose a crate of Chuck Berry records.
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